NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - The first of several new classes of New Jersey Transit railroad engineers is poised to take the wheel this summer, signaling a small step toward reducing the rampant train cancellations that plagued commuters a year ago.
Ten men and two women were recognized by Gov. Phil Murphy Monday for completing the classroom portion of their 78-week training program. They are scheduled to do additional test rides before they become full-fledged engineers in the next few months.
The agency, which operates the nation's third-largest transit system, says the new hires will help lessen some of the effects of schedule reductions this summer due to track repairs by Amtrak at New York's Penn Station.
"This is a game of increments, so this is another really important step, but it's one of many steps," Murphy said Monday.
A shortage of engineers combined with higher-than-normal unscheduled absences last summer led to numerous cancelled commuter trains while NJ Transit was scrambling to finish federally mandated safety improvements by last December.
NJ Transit Executive Director Kevin Corbett said last week he would crack down on any abuse of time off this summer, particularly abuse of the Family Medical Leave Act.
"We've sent out notices to all employees, not just rail, reminding them that FMLA is fine for what it's meant for but if you abuse it there are consequences," he said. "So we'll be very diligent so that if we notice anybody abusing it, we can get right on it, that day."
Phil Yucis, 37, an Army veteran from Saddlebrook who had been driving a concrete truck, jumped at the chance to get what he considered a job upgrade.
Yucis said the training was "very difficult, very demanding. But it needs to be demanding because you're responsible for people's lives at 100 mph, over 100 miles. You need to know what you're doing."
Brandi Simpson was drawn by the higher pay and the chance to improve a situation she saw regularly in her job as an NJ Transit crew dispatcher for 18 years.
"I knew Transit was going through a lot as far as canceling trains," she said. "I was on that side and I saw how much canceling was going on and I said, 'Why not? I could help.'"
NJ Transit has said it needs at least 390 engineers to accommodate service on its 12 rail lines and cover for anticipated absences. About 335 were on duty last summer. After Monday's class, three additional classes are expected to add about 40 more engineers by year's end.